Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology
KYLE IDLEMAN’S BOOK The End of Me introduces us to the concept, “Where real life in the upside-down ways of Jesus begins.” In other words, the ways of Christ are often completely opposite of what we think might work. We think coming to the end of me means we cease to exist as an individual. It is Idleman’s belief that we need to be broken to be whole. I would add that we need to realize our brokenness—the mere presence of brokenness in our lives will mean nothing if it remains an undiscovered reason for our misery. Scripture speaks of many such dichotomies: mourn to be happy; humbled to be exalted; authentic to be accepted; helpless to be empowered; disqualified to be chosen; weak to be strong. No one knew this better than Paul.
Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, ESV). He noted that through our own weakness we are made strong in Christ (see Phil. 4:13). He said, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Idleman quotes Colossians 3:3: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We can only come to the end of ourselves through accepting our brokenness and our weakness. This is how Romans 8:28 operates in the lives of those who follow Christ. Psalm 34:18 reminds us, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”
Following Jesus means striving to be like Him. He always obeyed His Father, so we must strive to do the same (see John 8:29; 15:10). To truly follow Christ means to make Him our Savior and LORD; our redeemer and Master. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38-39). You cannot be “half a disciple.” When we cherry pick which verses to follow, or in any way serve self or the flesh instead of Jesus, we are not in the way of Jesus. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).
“For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom. 14:8-9).
Regarding coming to the end of ourselves in order to find Christ, Idleman recalls a conversation with a church member: “I was returning a call to a man named Brian. I read [in] my notes that his eighteen-month-old son had died a few weeks earlier. I didn’t know the details, but as a father of four, I can’t imagine such a loss. I said a prayer as I dialed his number. Brian answered with a monotone Hello. Having had many conversations like this over the past twenty years, I knew there was not much I could say. So, after expressing my heartbreak for his loss, I allowed silence to settle into our conversation. After a few moments, Brian spoke four words I was not prepared for. I backed over him” (1). After describing how their son opened the door and went outside, playing in the driveway, Brian explained how he discovered Jesus in a way he never had before. He said, “I feel like I reached this point in my life when I had absolutely nothing left, and it turns out that for the first time in my life, Jesus has become real.” When he reached the end of himself, Brian discovered Jesus.
We tend to fear any program of recovery or self-improvement that requires annihilation of “self.” Alcoholics often balk at Step 3 in the Alcoholics Anonymous program, fearing a loss of identity—Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him (2). Powell says, “Why don’t more Christians, myself included, look more like Jesus? Ego. You might call it ‘the flesh.’ I believe our definition for ‘ego’ closely parallels Paul’s definition for ‘flesh’. The ego is who you think you are. It’s your false identity, your body image, education, theological knowledge, clothes, friends, social status, job, successes and accomplishments. And, as Paul says, your ego is against your Spirit. Everyone has an ego, and I believe one of the major tasks of spiritual maturity is recognizing and letting go of the ego’s lies in favor of something better” (3).
The First Step
Idleman calls the end of me “where real life in the upside-down ways of Jesus begins.” This is the real paradox: at the end of me I find real life in Him. It is the same paradox as surrendering to win. Idleman writes, “[Jesus] is saying, ‘Down with the kingdom of this world and up with the kingdom of God” (4). Admittedly, I sometimes find myself feeling good when I spend money. Typically, my purchases are on items that will make me feel good or look good. Whenever we overspend to binge on the material things of this world we are establishing “idols.” Perhaps we do not like to look vulnerable. Personally, I don’t like to look “poor.” I cannot think of a better example of putting earth’s treasures and man’s respect before God! This is something I have finally come to examine closely.
Today, man has become masters of illusion, experts at covering pain, abusers of medication, slaves of financial debt, followers of fads, and partakers of loneliness. We don’t realize that we are broken, and that the only solution for being broken is to feel our brokenness. Another paradox: brokenness is the path to wholeness. Idleman believes real life begins at brokenness. He writes, “Broken things are precious. Broken people reveal the beauty and power of God. Flaws are openings” (5). I could not agree more. I have found my illusory life has limited my spiritual life and hindered stepping into God’s will for my life. My prayer today is simple: God, take my broken pieces and remold them into what seems best to you. We all must become willing to let the cracks in our facade show, but we find this extremely difficult. Social media posts, for example, allow us to edit our appearance, our lives, our opinions. We post for acceptance, not authenticity.
Nouwen writes, “What is our true vocation in life? Where can we find the peace of mind to listen to the calling voice of God? Who can guide us through the inner labyrinth of our thoughts, emotions, and feelings?” (6). He speaks of people who “know” the story of Christ and possess a deep desire to let this knowledge descend from their minds into their hearts. The trip from our brain to our heart—a mere eighteen inches—can be one of the longest journeys we will take in our lifetime. We all have a sense of “heart knowledge,” and we know it can give us the proper perspective on life, on love, on God, but we fail to make the leap from head to heart. The prophet Ezekiel wrote, “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 11:19). Paul said, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:10).
It’s a Matter of Spirituality
In his chapter “All These Other Things,” Nouwen says, “The spiritual life is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence. No, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of pains and joys of the here and now. Therefore, we need to begin with a careful look at the way we think, speak, feel, and act from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and year to year” (7). I learned a term in my undergraduate psychology studies: metacognition, which is an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. Essentially, it is “thinking about what you are thinking about.” For me, this can be the underlying source of my opinion or behavior at any given moment. In this regard, it is a lot like metadata: a set of data that describes and gives information about other data.
To become aware of what we are thinking, we must honestly and courageously confront our many self-deceptive games. For example, a mood of resignation will prevent us from actively searching for the life of the Spirit. My spiritual frustration came from deciding that I was unworthy of salvation; of God’s love. I decided He could not possibly use me. This led to a sense of being unfulfilled. I had a gnawing sense that I was useless and worthless. This caused a lot of inaction in my life, which led to boredom. Nouwen writes, “To be bored… does not mean that we have nothing to do, but that we question the value of the things we do” (8). This is a brilliant revelation! He further notes that boredom is often closely linked to resentment. Huh? When we wonder if what we do means anything to anyone, we easily feed used, manipulated, and exploited, which can lead to anger and resentment. If we remain in this state, we begin to ask, “Is my life worth living?” and depression is not far behind.
Life has a way of pouring us out. It takes away a loved one, our job, our home. It can also take away our health and our hope. We come to the point where we’re holding onto nothing. We feel empty and hopeless. But we need to be empty to be filled, and God loves to fill empty things. There are many examples of this in Scripture. Jesus filled 5,000 empty bellies (see Matt. 14:13-21); He filled the empty soul of the woman at the well (see John 4:7-26). When we surrender to Christ, we set the stage for restoration. He heals our brokenness and makes us whole in Him. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
When We Help Others
Our ability to remember even the smallest of details from a past experience is truly remarkable. The older we get, the more we have to remember. Our memory plays a significant role in our emotional well-being. Trauma, failure, grief, pains, joys, satisfaction—all are stored for our recall, whether by choice or as baggage. Most of our emotions are tied inextricably to our memory. Nouwen notes that we “…perceive our world with our memories… our memories help us to see and understand new impressions” (9). Accordingly, when we engage in helping others—whether as a professional or a lay minister—the first questions are always directed to memory. The emotional pain most commonly encountered when counseling others is a suffering of memories. It is not unusual for us to bury painful or traumatic events deep inside our being. Individuals who repress such events often come from a family who does likewise. “We’re not going to talk about this ever again!” This is prevalent in a family who lacks intimate communication.
What is buried cannot be healed. By cutting off the past, we paralyze our future actions. I read a passage from a book on Buddhism years ago that provided the following warning: If we fail to deal with emotional hurts of the past, they will impact our future, wherein our actions will not so much be undertaken by us than driven by our memories. Scheler says, “Remembering is the beginning of freedom from the covert power of the remembered thing or occurrence” (10). Nouwen believes when our memories remain covered with fear, anxiety, or suspicion, the Word of God cannot bear fruit in our lives. He further makes a remarkable comparison: “The strategy of the principalities and powers is to disconnect us, to cut us off from the memory of God” (11). Paul said, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12) (italics added).
Ferguson says, “We have seen through union with Christ… all that is his by incarnation becomes ours through faith… when we are joined to him there is also a sense in which his life and power become available to us to transform our lives” (12). Jesus has paid for our past, and He has sanctified our present, so that our past may not dominate our present Christian life. This is a key factor in making sure the power of our past experiences do not destroy us in the present. Indeed, we are more than conquerors through Christ (see Rom. 8:37). As we grope for direction, meaning, and purpose, our quest must not be hampered by the hurts and sins of our past. Unresolved trauma and anger color what we see in others. It is not ideal to see our lives as a long list of randomly chained incidents and accidents. This has no place in the ministry of reconciliation.
A man walks down the street, he says, ‘Why am I soft in the middle, now? The rest of my life is so hard I need a photo-opportunity, I want a shot at redemption. Don’t want to end up in a cartoon graveyard… there were incidents and accidents, there were hints and allegations—Paul Simon.
Nouwen compares revolution (on a societal level) to transformation (on a personal level), and he turns to Christ for further comparison. He writes, “The liberals and progressives are fooling themselves by trying to make an intolerable [world] a little more tolerable” (13). Revolutionaries do not want a better human being, but a new human being. Revolutionaries must face self-reflection; in their quest to improve society they are also fighting their own reactions, fears, and ambitions. Radical activism must begin with radical self-examination. If, as we’ve discussed above, life means breaking down the barriers to our painful past, conversion and social change both derive power from a source above and beyond the corporeal. Nouwen says Jesus has taught us that changing the human heart and society are not separate endeavors, but are “…as interconnected as the two beams of the cross” (14).
Kyle Idleman tells us that when we come to the end of our ropes, “real life” begins in the upside-down ways of Jesus Christ. People believe there is “something out there” that might give meaning and purpose to their lives, but they can’t seem to discovery what it is. The Bible tells us life’s real prize is hidden, and we have to know where to look. Scripture is our treasure map. Paul writes, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Idleman says “the end of me” is where real life begins. Jesus told the disciples, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many [but] the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13-14). In other words, we can expect a tough path when we choose the road less traveled. It crosses through death, but it leads to life.
When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die. He told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Of course, Jesus is not telling us physical death leads to life; He is talking about dying to ourselves. Today’s post-Christian culture wants nothing to do with this “nonsense,” because for them life is all about celebrating ourselves, finding more for ourselves. But you cannot get there from here. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). He sums up this heavenly principle by adding, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (16:26).
*True Christianity requires a commitment to follow Christ; to be “in the way of” Christ; to live according to the Christian worldview in all circumstances. It involves a denial of self.
(1) Kyle Idleman, The End of Me (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishing, 2015), 11.
(2) Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, 4th ed. (New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services), 2002.
(3) Frank Powell, “9 Ways Your Ego Prevents You From Experiencing God,” Frank Powell: Restoring Culture Through Christ. (n.d.). URL: https://frankpowell.me/ways-ego-christians-god
(4) Idleman, Ibid., 26.
(5) Ibid., 37.
(6) Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 5.
(7) Ibid., 7.
(8) Ibid., 10.
(9) Ibid., 224.
(10) Max Scheler, On the Eternal in Man, trans. Bernard Noble (New York, NY: Harper and Bros., 1960), 41.
(11) Nouwen, Ibid., 230.
(12) Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, 1981), 103.
(13) Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York, NY: Random House, 2010, 1972), 22.
(14) Ibid., 25.